Celebration, Connection and Corporate Espionage at KidLitVic Meet the Publishers 2019

As I reflect on the past four years of attending KidLitVic Meet the Publishers Conferences (KLV) I have no doubt that my journey from published author of fiction and non-fiction for adults, to a writer of children’s literature, has been empowered by this premier annual event in the Australian Children’s/YA Literary Calendar.

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KLV organisers, L to R, Sarah Reynolds, Nicky Johnston and Alison Reynolds.

Now, I’m not just being a typical Melburnian when I use the term ‘premier’ (as I know we do have a tendency to err… spruik our ‘bigness’ and ‘bestness’). But the buzz at this year’s KLV was palpable. And I spoke to lots of local and interstate publishers and delegates during the course of the day, who all echoed the same sentiments: that the superior level of organisation and conference content made this year’s KLV an undeniable and huge success.

Officially, KLV is the brainchild of Melbourne’s Alison Reynolds – a highly respected and accomplished writer, presenter and editor within the children’s book industry – a legitimate mover and shaker. How she manages to coordinate such a professional, yet warm and personable conference, with constantly evolving content and only three other team members to assist her – the inimitable duo of Coral Vass and Nicky Johnston from the very beginning, and the newly joined arts events professional Sarah Reynolds – is worthy of high praise indeed.

It’s not easy to keep content fresh in an annual conference of this kind, and to likewise appease the interests of both novice and seasoned children’s/YA literature creatives.

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KLV organiser Coral Vass with Paul Collins of Ford Street Publishing, taking questions from the floor during Open Question Time

I’ve enjoyed seeing the KLV program grow and evolve over the past four years, to include more Masterclasses for authors and illustrators (presenting up-to-date industry information applicable to portfolio and manuscript development, presentation and submission); more publisher Assessments and Pitches; more Panels exploring the publishing process, including agents; ever more polished and engaging Panel Facilitators with obvious industry experience (this year competently handled by Katrina McKelvey and Davina Bell); bigger Illustrator Showcases; an exciting Open Question Time; and for the first time this year a Quiet Room, as well as Up Close & Personal small group meetings with publishers – incredibly invaluable experiences.

I also noticed significantly more blokes amongst the delegates this year, as well as a wider age-range compared to previous years. All healthy signs of an increasingly diverse and growing children’s/YA book industry. And a cause for much celebration.

The venue move from the State Library of Victoria to the Melbourne Town Hall occurred last year, to accommodate the ballooning number of delegates. (Can you believe KLV had a wait list of 100 this year?) I really liked how the room allocations and layouts were re-jigged this year – it all seemed to flow perfectlyMy only niggle was the clunky IT in the booking process (gah – we only ever talk about IT when it misbehaves) which I’m sure will be looked at closely before the start-of-play next year. 

A publisher I had a manuscript assessment with this year asked me if this was my first time attending KLV, and appeared quite surprised when I said that it was in fact my fourth. Clearly intrigued, she asked me, ‘Why?’. The first thought that came to my mind was the desire to connect – with like-minded people who were also stepping away from their solitary creator’s caves; and with the industry as a whole. Finding my tribe. Something she acknowledged that she also very much liked about KLV.

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Camaraderie and Connection at KLV 2019 – me (RHS pink poncho) with part of our flock of duckies from The Duck Pond (an online community of kidlit creatives, founded by children’s author Jen Storer). There were even more duckies waddling around….but getting everyone into one place at morning tea time was like herding…well…ducks!

I’ve personally enjoyed making many friends with writers and illustrators at KLV, who I’ve also gone on to connect with at SCBWI, in online kidlit groups (a big shout out to my fellow Duckies in The Duck Pond and Scribblers), and also a critique group.

My own KLV journey has gradually percolated from spending the first two years listening, learning, digesting and connecting – by attending Panels and Masterclasses. Who knew email signatures and branding were so important to a children’s writer? (Thank you Lisa Berryman, of Harper Collins). I then continued to write, re-write, submit, re-submit, and keep connecting with my SCBWI and kidlit community on social media, and in real-life (gasp), as well as entering creative writing competitions (and getting short-listed). Much of this was done thanks to advice received directly from the mouths of publishing professionals at KLV.

Eventually, I signed up to some publisher assessments at KLV last year and this year, and have received wonderful verbal and written feedback via professionally marked-up manuscripts. Generic rejection letters/emails from publishers just don’t give you the feedback on which to grow and develop your craft. So these documents and the fifteen minutes we get to discuss them at KLV assessments are absolutely worth their weight in gold. And it also made me realise just how much I missed the editing process (which I really enjoyed during the publication of my novel). It’s an absolute privilege to have an editor dive deep into your work, and know and understand it as intimately as you do. Likewise, to hover above it, and notice subtle or glaring holes in the rhythm, pace and plot – which is so easy to miss when you are so close to it. To this day, ten years post-publication of my novel with Bloomsbury, I’m still very good friends with my divine editor.

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Children’s author and founder of The Duck Pond and Scribbles online kidlit community, Jen Storer with Lisa Berryman of Harper Collins (photo credit: Maria Parenti-Baldey)

That special bond between the writer and editor/publisher was on full display during the Panel Discussion: ‘The Inside Story’, when Davina Bell interviewed acclaimed children’s author Jen Storer and her publisher, Lisa Berryman, of Harper Collins. I think every delegate was genuinely lulled into reverential silence by the hardworking ‘Dream Team’ up on the stage, giving us so much to aspire to, as they explained the detailed process involved in creating the best possible body of work. It was evident just how much they loved the characters, the words on the page, the illustrations, the design and of course the sharing of fan letters sent in by readers.

But most importantly, Jen and Lisa credited the success of their long-term partnership to a deeply invested foundation of trust, respect and boundaries.

I also very much enjoyed the Panel Discussion: ‘Find Your Perfect Match: From Big Publishers to Small Indie Houses’, again facilitated by Davina, where three publishers of small (Scribble), medium (Text) and large (Hachette) publishing houses gave an incredibly frank insight into their inner workings during the acquisition, and nuts-and-bolts phases of bringing a book to market. I was really struck by the candour of the publishers Miriam Rosenbloom (Scribble), Jane Pearson (Text) and Suzanne O’Sullivan (Hachette). I felt that several times they could have easily held back and been more commercially cautious in their answers, but actively chose to share information. Leading a delighted Davina (who works for Affirm Press) whispering into her microphone that she felt like she was engaging in corporate espionage – much to the delight of us delegates. Nevertheless, irrespective of size, budgets, staffing and resources, all three publishers were fuelled by a love, passion and excitement for children’s/YA books.

Their universal advice to prospective authors and illustrators was to really spend time researching the types of books which are similar to yours, and find the right publishing ‘fit’ when you are submitting. And for writers, it’s your ‘voice’ that will get you across the line for the editors every time. As to whether that will be enough to equally enchant the sales and marketing team, is another proposition entirely.

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Davina Bell with Jane Pearson (Text), Miriam Rosenbloom (Scribble) and Suzanne O’Sullivan (Hachette) on the Panel ‘Finding Your Perfect Match – From Big Publishers to Small Indie Houses’ By the way, a completely random observation…..if Davina Bell should ever decide to add ‘TV interviewer’ to her impressive CV of writer, editor and marriage celebrant, I think Andrew Denton might just quake in his boots!

It’s clear that KLV 2019 more than comfortably achieved its official mission statement, “to connect children’s literary creators with Australia’s leading children’s book publishers, as well as seeking to empower authors and illustrators with the tools to manage their career and develop professional relationships.” The genuine level of collegiate sharing amongst the delegates and publishers was inspiring, and can surely only result in the Australian children’s/YA book industry becoming stronger and smarter and a producer of more outstanding works. 

As a creator and writer of stories, I walked away from KLV 2019 nourished and energised, both professionally and personally. I will now try to do exactly what the brilliant Keynote Speaker, and champion of the power of stories, Michelle Nye (Teacher Librarian/YABBA coordinator), urged us all to do: to go away and think, dream, wonder and question; to create stories that can be shared, told and re-imagined for years to come; stories that will entertain and inspire, and help connect us to our inner selves, our surroundings and our world, by stretching our minds. 

Oh, and I will also definitely take-up the very kind offer of the KLV organisers to send in a bonus query letter to the publisher of my choice, from the list on their website, on Monday 3rd June. I’m really excited to see that a publisher I missed out on booking is on that list. Ahh…another great opportunity from the KLV conference that in every sense is on our side, urging us onwards and upwards, to create fabulous books in the name of Australian children’s/YA literature.

It Ain’t What You Do – It’s The Way That You Do It

Key Take-Homes from the KidLitVic 2017 Workshop: ‘It’s All About Your Brand’, presented by Lisa Berryman, HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Branding+Workshop+FLier+(1)Well, it’s two weeks since I attended the Branding Workshop at KidLitVic 2017 in Melbourne, and I’ve purposely waited until now to share my key ‘take-homes’ – as I wanted to action them and show just how powerful the information presented was. Apart from the overriding message that a writer is a small business and that you should at all times conduct yourself and present yourself as one, and NEVER EVER do anything to damage your business or brand, there were two salient points that I needed to take action on ASAP. So here goes…

 

1. What is your Brand Message?

You need to be able to crystallise and drill down into one SHORT tagline: your interests in writing + what it is you write + what’s special about you. Some excellent examples were given by workshop participants, my favourite being, “Exploring Big Worlds Through Little Eyes.”

I was not communicating a clear, concise brand message about my picture book writing to publishers in my submission letters, and I needed to action this ASAP. So I literally went home after the conference and started the challenging task of filtering down all the elements of my picture book writing into one catchy tagline. It took a LONG time – involving self-reflection and really standing back from my work and analysing it. As well as spending time thinking about just what kind of writer I ‘think I am’ and making sure that it matched what I’m actually producing.

Once I’d got my short list, I employed the services of my 13 year-old son – he of the Snapchat-Nike-millennial generation – to give his opinions. He was a hard task master! With most of my early attempts yielding responses like, “Too long; Too boring; Just No; That’s Lame; Boring; Too long (AGAIN!); Don’t get it; Kind of OK; Yehhh…but Nah…” until I got to the finally approved “Yes” and here it is:

Feel Good Rhyming Adventures - Emma Bowd

And then, Lisa suggested that you can add just a few more words in your cover letters, by way of weaving in comparisons, to give the publisher a really good feel for where your writing and your books are positioned – especially useful for sales, marketing and booksellers. Here’s my long form:

‘Feel-good rhyming adventures, with the wisdom of Bob Graham and the energy of Julia Donaldson and Dr Seuss.’

Phew…now to the final task…

2. Does Your Email Signature Sell Your Business and Brand?

This is the one area of the Branding Workshop that I gave myself a big fat FAIL on! For the benefit of not writing a long and boring blog, I’ve tried to summarise the salient points from Lisa’s presentation in a one-page graphic, which shows EXACTLY how my email signature looked on the day of the workshop; and then, how it looked after I gave it Lisa’s WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHERE and HOW transformation.  It’s quite embarrassing to look at the comparisons – What was I thinking? That publishers were mind readers?! The ’30 second test’ is something that I made up – Lisa didn’t specifically spell it out, but it was definitely the vibe that I picked up on. Oh, and yes, Lisa really did single out the lovely Tania McCartney as having a truly wonderful and professional email signature and brand message – it had lots of links, pictures and a clear outline of all that she is involved in.

Well, that’s it folks. I hope you find it useful. The workshop was certainly the best $40 I’ve spent in a very long time!

KidLitVic2017 It's All About Your Brand Workshop Infogram - Emma Bowd Author

When Worlds Collide – A Life Enriched by Books and Volunteering

Oh, how I love it when my worlds collide in the most unexpected ways! I’d like to share with you a beautiful experience I had early last December during my day volunteering at a Melbourne children’s hospital library. But first some background…

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Author and literacy volunteer Emma Bowd at The Book Bunker – the Scholastic Children’s Library at RCH Melbourne

Being a writer is a very solitary existence. So in early 2016, I made a resolution to reach out to the big wide world – both ‘real’ and ‘cyber’ – with more literary outings and professional development, plus a complete revamp of my online ‘author presence’. Cue attendances at some brilliant writing courses and seminars; conducting classroom writing workshops; and the emergence of ‘Emmabowdauthor’ across several online platforms – with the pleasant realisation that Facebook was actually quite interesting and informative, and Instagram was my new passion/obsession 🙂 But there was more to come…

Prior to becoming a writer, I worked as an Occupational Therapist for 12 years – both in Australia and London. Imagine my excitement one Sunday evening early last year when I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a ‘shout out’ by the highly respected Melbourne children’s bookstore the ‘Little Bookroom’, about a new children’s library called The Book Bunker, which was being established at Melbourne’s prestigious Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH)  – and it needed volunteers. This perfect meeting of my worlds was too good to be true. A few emails, plus a hurried update of my ‘Police Check’ and ‘Working With Children’ accreditation and I was at RCH within the fortnight – volunteering each Tuesday from 10am to 2pm at The Book Bunker. And what a wonderful year it proved to be!

The Book Bunker – The Scholastic Children’s Library at Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne

IMG_20160531_173728The Book Bunker at RCH opened in May 2016 with over $200,000 worth of books donated by Scholastic Australia, covering all age ranges from board books and picture books; to early readers, chapter books, young adult novels and non-fiction books. It’s staffed entirely by volunteers like myself. And while I come from a medical/literary background, other volunteers come from fields such as librarianship and teaching, and we’re all on a roster which keeps the library open from Monday through to Saturday.

Why a Library in a Children’s Hospital?

My experiences at The Book Bunker have reinforced to me the importance of access to books via a free library system for ALL children (both sick and well) as a source of entertainment, diversion, intellectual enrichment and socialization.  And I can honestly say that no week at The Book Bunker has ever been the same.

For mentally and physically exhausted parents, a visit to The Book Bunker is often a quiet bubble of calm away from the flashing lights and beeping monitors of the ward. A place where they can select books to take back to their child; as well as to share with other siblings who can often become momentarily neglected, through no fault of their own, in the stressful situation of having a sick family member.  The books that parents and children choose are often long-time favourites which bring a small sense of 'home' and familiar routines to the foreign medical environment.

Book Bunker volunteers also deliver books directly to the wards via a 'book trolley' for the many children and families who cannot leave their rooms and visit the library. On other occasions, the library can be a loud and raucous space - with craft activities and book readings to large groups of children. And thanks to Scholastic, we were lucky enough to have a special visit from famous author Mem Fox and illustrator Judy Horacek - which created much fanfare and fun throughout the hospital.

A Special Summer’s Day at The Book Bunker

A summer’s day at The Book Bunker doesn't get much better for this former Occupational Therapist turned writer and literary hospital volunteer...

During the summer I’ve noticed a lot more families visiting The Book Bunker – often with multiple siblings in tow, due to the school holidays. Many have travelled long distances from country Victoria or from interstate to be cared for as Inpatients or to attend Specialist Outpatient Clinics (with notoriously long waiting times).

Last year, on Melbourne’s first true summer’s day, following our Arctic spring, the thermometer outside nudged the mid 30’s and I welcomed a dad and his 1 year-old and 6 year-old sons to The Book Bunker. He told me in precise, slow, heavily-accented English that they’d just come from a town west of Geelong, and were all a little hot and weary after a very early start to the day. But they were all smiling – surprised and delighted to have stumbled upon a ‘library in a hospital’. A place that they immediately decided to spend the long wait for the older boy’s Outpatient’s appointment.

The 6 year-old boy gleefully told me that he had just finished Prep and that he really liked books. His face lit up as he walked around and found that his favourite books from his 'school library' were also in his 'hospital library'. He couldn’t believe his luck! Tucking each book under his arm, he asked me to read some of them to him; before summoning the courage to ask if he could instead read the books to me.

“I’m very good at reading,” he said, with the unaffected conviction of a 6 year-old. “I’m the first in my family to go to school. I’m very clever.”  He shot a grin to his dad who replied in equal measure with a warm wide smile, which seemed to engulf his entire face, and proud eyes which danced around his son.  The dad shared that he had come to Australia 7 years ago from Sudan, and that his son is a very diligent student at school who also teaches the entire family how to speak English.

Then, in a rush of excitement, the dad picked up his mobile phone and gave it to the boy to show me the screen. Displayed on it was his son’s recent school report from Prep. Both the boy and the dad insisted that I read it – I must! They could not contain their excitement as they observed my eyes scanning the screen. And I have to say that their excitement was entirely warranted – an achieved reading level of Year 2 among the accomplished results. The dad had the report as his screen saver on his mobile phone. And I have no doubt that it had been shown to many people before me; and will be shown again to many people after me.

With a small mountain of books read; inquisitive questions about bears, dinosaurs, piranhas, dogs, bees and escargots answered; a toddler occupied with craft activities and board books; and a dad rested – a piercing beep on the mobile phone announced that their doctor was ready to see them. A quick flurry of activity to gather together belongings and they were on their way – a happy trio waving goodbyes and sincerely thanking me for their time at The Book Bunker.

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What a privilege it had been to spend Melbourne’s first real summer's day in the company of such a proud parent and his motivated, engaging young sons at The Book Bunker.

The eldest son being the first in his family to EVER attend school; is excelling at school and teaching his entire family how to speak English; is being cared for by the expert medics at RCH; and delights in reading books from his 'school library' at his 'hospital library'.

My world has most definitely been enriched by volunteering experiences like this at The Book Bunker - it really is wonderful when your worlds collide!


Meet the Publishers Day – KidLitVic 2016

I spent a hugely enjoyable and inspiring day today at the very first Melbourne ‘Meet the Publishers’ event for Children and YA writers and illustrators.  It was organised by authors Alison Reynolds and Dee White, along with the assistance of illustrator Nicky Johnston and author Jaquelyn Muller, and held at the magnificent State Library of Victoria.

The opening address was given by David Ryding, the Director of Melbourne’s UNESCO City of Literature Office, and set the tone for a day of collaboration and inspiration on all things creative in the world of children and YA publishing.

Both established and emerging authors and illustrators were able to attend Panel Discussions from the creme de la creme of Australian publishing, as well as present Portfolio Displays, Manuscript Assessments and 3 Minute Pitches.

The Publishers and Agents represented were: Allen & Unwin; Black Dog Books; Hachette Australia; Hardie Grant Egmont; HarperCollins Children's Books Australia; Jacinta di Mase Management; Random House Children's Books, Penguin Random House; Scholastic Australia; Scribe/Scribble; Text Publishing; The Five Mile Press

Some key themes from the panelists which really resonated with me were:

  • authenticity and consistency of voice are the cornerstones of good writing
  • be true to your DNA  – don’t try to write or draw in a particular genre, just because it’s the current fad/bestseller
  • a good story is everything – irrespective of what tense it’s written in
  • collaboration between authors and illustrators is crucial
  • a book is a result of teamwork – between authors, illustrators and publishers
  • publishing is a commercial enterprise – that is the reality
  • all publishers are different – do your homework before submitting
  • N E V E R  G I V E  U P